Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Beyond the Bilkis Bano case

Justice was manifestly done in Mumbai with a special court sentencing 11 of the 12 found guilty to life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape and massacre case. This landmark judgment, which is bound to reinforce public faith in the judicial system, was preceded by a series of Machiavellian attempts to subvert justice by lending a friendly hand to the accused. One of the most heinous of the post-Godhra cases, a pregnant Bilkis Bano was gang-raped while 14 members of he r family were killed when they were trying to flee their riot-affected village during the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. The case might have been easily derailed if it wasn’t for the Supreme Court, which entrusted it to the Central Bureau of Investigation. In response to a petition from Ms Bano — who maintained that the Gujarat police were hand in glove with the accused, that evidence was being tampered with, and that witnesses were being threatened — the apex court also transferred the case from Gujarat to Maharashtra. But it was not such judicial intervention alone that saved the case from collapse. A heap of praise is due to Ms Bano, who pursued the case doggedly and with great determination, refusing to be cowed down by threats or tempted by inducements. The remarkable courage of this young woman sends a powerful message to the victims of other riot cases — namely, that justice is possible even when one is up against a State government that is hell-bent on circumventing it. Like the Best Bakery massacre, which was also transferred by the Supreme Court out of Gujarat, the Bilkis Bano case became a symbol of the communal carnage in the State. While there is reason to celebrate the intervention of the apex court and to applaud Ms Bano’s resolve, it is important to remember that this is but one of the several hundreds of pending cases relating to the Gujarat riots. Six years have passed since the dreadful incident that shattered Ms Bano’s life and it is a matter of conjecture how many more will elapse before the other Gujarat riot victims receive justice. The question assumes a worrying character given the country’s extremely poor record in providing justice to the riot-affected — consider the fate of the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots or those who suffered in the Mumbai riots in 1993. The question must also be seen against the backdrop of the attitude of the Gujarat government, which had closed more than 1,600 riot cases — these were reopened in 2004 after the Supreme Court directed that they be reviewed. In a way, the real challenge for the criminal justice system lies in how it deals with the remaining Gujarat riot cases


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